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I used to think that I should always use focus-fire when controlling a bunch of units - i.e. tell them all to target the same enemy, in order to bring it down quickly.

However, I saw some replays from top players and it seems that they don't always focus their units fire. I've been thinking about it and it seems that focus-fire does have some disadvantages:

  1. It requires a lot of attention (micro) which I could have invested elsewhere, especially for longer battles.
  2. The AI might not be able to respond smartly when the focused unit is moving backward but other enemy units stay put.
  3. It might lead to "overkill" - too much damage wasted on a unit which requires less damage to be destroyed.

But it still seems to be beneficial overall... so when should I use focus-fire and when should I just let my units duke it out? Let's assume there's no specific unit I just have to take down (e.g. a detector), in which case it's obvious I should focus it.

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4 Answers 4

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Focus fire is critical for sniping injured units and for taking down important or high DPS units like void rays, ghosts, brood lords, immortals etc...

But beyond that, it actually worse to focus fire units. Using this awesome map, I have actually tested micro battles with and without focus fire. I have found that 9/10 times any group of units I micro to focus fire just flat out lose to non-micro'd units.

There are two problems with naive use of focus fire. 1) Targeting one unit will most likely cause you to over-kill the unit, which is a waste when you could be shooting at another target. and 2) If your unit is not in perfect range of the target, the unit will bumble around until they are, which means instead of attacking, they are bumbling around.

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The biggest exception to this rule is against Protoss carriers. Many units end up targeting the interceptors. –  altCognito Jan 17 '11 at 16:03

A lot of times at the beginning of a battle you want to focus fire units that are more of a threat the longer they're allowed to live. Siege Tanks and Void Rays are good examples of this. You need to take down a Void Ray before it can get fully charged because it becomes so devastating, and Siege Tanks just deal so much damage anyway. Against Carriers, a lot of times it's important to focus the carrier rather than the interceptors because the AI will not always do that for you.

One time when you definitely don't want to focus fire is when some of the units you selected are out of range of the target unit. For example, if you're using Zealots, only a couple Zealots can manage to find a position to get hits in on any given unit unless you get a complete surround, which doesn't generally happen in army vs. army battles. Also, even with ranged units, a lot of times many are out of range of a specific target and have no path to get within range, so they will dance uselessly if you focus their fire on that target. It's always better to have every unit dealing damage somewhere during a battle rather than watching.

One specific time to definitely focus fire is if your opponent starts to retreat. Make sure to pick off his weak units before he's able to get fully out of the battle so it costs more for him to replace his army. This is even a decent strategy during the battle as well, as that removes one of his sources of DPS. If you see a unit getting low, try to finish it off.

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You want to focus down broodlords too -- the AI has a nasty habit of focusing on the broodlings instead. –  Raven Dreamer Aug 11 '10 at 12:02
    
To add to the zealot comment, the same goes with any melee unit. I prefer to attack-move zealots and split stalkers up into two groups and focus fire on separate but important enemy units with those stalkers. –  Lotus Notes Aug 11 '10 at 18:26
    
As a corollary to the idea of some units being unable to reach a specific target - if the "front line" is very wide, make sure that any focus fire on one side of the line only uses your troops on that side - or just don't focus fire. –  Torpesh Aug 11 '10 at 19:56

As stated before regarding focus fire and when you should do it, I'd like to add that you should always move into an engagement with attack move (keyboard short cut 'A' + left click on map). Generally speaking, your micro would be better spent on moving a unit taking damage out of a fight rather than focusing its fire. This will force your opponents AI to target a new unit. If you do this consistently you will lose fewer units vs. your opponent.

A good way to do this is to hold down alt so you can see all the unit health bars, select the one taking damage and click (not attack move) out of battle. If your units are stalkers, blink individual units out of range. If you're Zerg, burrow individual units taking damage (unless a detector unit is present then move them out).

This strategy will help you win a battle even with a weaker army. It will definitely take some practice before you start seeing positive results.

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It's worth noting that you can also set the game to always show all health bars, so you don't have to hold alt. The screen can get cluttered this way, but some people prefer it. –  StrixVaria Aug 11 '10 at 15:21
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@StrixVaria true. I don't use that option because of, as you said, the clutter. Holding down alt also has its drawbacks since you have to have your finger on a certain key while you are trying to micro your units which can slow your reaction time down. –  Mark Aug 11 '10 at 15:26

A typical situation would be if the enemy has few strong units and you have many weaker units. Focussing fire allows you to quickly reduce his DPS by destroying the strong enemies while keeping your units alive longer.

If the situation is opposite then don't focus (or only to kill off heavily wounded retreating enemies), you will waste too much fire without reducing his overall DPS significantly.

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